For the next two days, I’m turning my column over to two guest columnists who are first time voters. I’ve asked them to explain why they were voting, for whom and what role they thought their parental upbringing had played in shaping their political beliefs ; and at the end, to choose a piece of music. One guest columnist will be from the centre right, one from the centre left. Today’s column is from the centre right – by James Penn, age 20, 2nd year student at the University of Auckland, studying a conjoint LLB and BCom, majoring in economics and finance.
As someone who likes to consider himself, in admittedly vainglorious fashion, a considered and rational actor, the act of voting for the first time is a somewhat confusing one. I know that my vote has a close to zero chance of actually influencing the outcome of Parliament. The chance I will cast the marginal vote that adds to National or Act’s number of seats in Parliament is miniscule. The chance, even if I did, that doing so would affect the government makes voting on a strictly practical level even more spurious as a worthwhile exercise.
But somehow I have spent a large amount of time (perhaps detrimentally so, depending on the outcome of my upcoming exams) agonising over how to cast my first vote in a national election. I thought it might simply be the election day atmosphere at the polling booth that is enticing me and making it a rational decision to vote. However, upon realising that I’m still registered to vote in my home Whanganui Electorate rather than where I will be residing on election day, Auckland Central, and still feeling a need to cast an advance vote, it was clear this fervour wasn’t the vital factor.
Ultimately, I’ve decided, it’s a rather intangible feeling of camaraderie and shared experience that connects us when we vote, and is particularly present as I anticipate voting for the first time. I don’t think it’s a feeling of responsibility, as voting is often touted as in an effort to drag us ‘Gen Y-ers’ out to the polling booths. Alongside the notion of collectivism, I think it’s a feeling of (somewhat self-aggrandising) pride that we have considered all of the policy implications and decided on our own what would be best for everyone else; voting is the natural extension of that.
It is largely a fear of that temptation to believe our own assessments of policy are superior that informs my political views. I fear that both voters and politicians are too readily susceptible to believing in a miracle cure; or at least that would they would prefer, others must too. Put simply, I believe in smaller government. I believe in the power of self-interest, within a minimalist framework of rules and regulations, to deliver for the collective. And I believe in a state that does care for its most vulnerable, but limits itself wherever those individuals can be their own alternative to the state. I prefer a world in which the state is the alternative when individuals fail, rather than individuals being the alternative where the state fails.
There is no simple answer as to where my political beliefs come from. Having grown up with parents who are broadly swing voters, I was not pushed one way or another during dinner table discussions. More significant in nudging me to the right of centre was perhaps my interest in debating and economics; that is not to say that these activities are inherently left or right, but rather that what I found convincing when pursuing them happened to be more to the right side of the political divide than the left.
And those pursuits have also informed whom I have found particularly convincing and unconvincing, admirable and deplorable, during the prelude to my first voting election. I have been particularly enamoured of Jamie Whyte’s appearances, for example. A friend describes his virtues best as “intellectual honesty”. Whether you agree or disagree with the Act Party’s ideas, politics takes a back seat to principle when Whyte has been challenged to outline his vision this election. This has perhaps lapsed at certain points on social policy, but by and large has been the case. The same integrity can be found in the sentiments expressed by Te Ururoa Flavell this election.
By contrast, politicians such as Laila Harré and Colin Craig have often failed to substantiate policies, their rationale, and their benefits, adopting misrepresentative sound bites instead. The polls show that it’s good politics; but it’s bad for policy and is disappointing from the perspective of this first time voter.
That said, I am confident that even more regrettable trends of this election may actually be virtuous from the perspective of voter turnout. The left have bemoaned the content and conduct exposed in Dirty Politics, while the right have bemoaned the book itself, its methodology and its partisanship. I am sympathetic to elements of the opinions held by both these broad groups.
The corollary has been a campaign focused on scandal, spectacle, and at times, slander. While it’s been widely opined that this will further damage political enfranchisement, I’m not sure this is so true for first time voters. While much of what it has revealed is lamentable, it has also brought political choice to the mainstream. Our political leaders have been consistently the first item on the 6 o’clock news and the cover image of the newspaper. It is true that an intellectual discussion of policy would be preferable, but would mere policy announcements have thrust themselves in front of the eyes of voters to the same extent? I’m skeptical.
I think that there is some value in drawing people in through a more theatrical display of politics, one that creates a divide larger even than National’s roads of national significance between the major parties. In reality, the policy differences between New Zealand’s political behemoths are not as large as they are portrayed. But an intellectual examination of the intricate and nuanced differences is not likely to take the front page were dirty politics to cease to exist. Instead, non-political, or more exciting foreign news would fill the prime time slots.
So while the pantomime campaign we have witnessed is frustrating, artificial and often shallow, it is worth remembering that there is a reason pantomimes have long had more popular appeal than documentaries. I envisage this pantomime selling particularly well at the polling booth for first time voters this election.
In assessing the policies beneath the politics, my focus as a voter is primarily, and like many, on economics. Alongside this, and of similar importance, I consider education policy. For me, the right is, broadly, on the right track in these areas.
While this is not the column for an entire analysis of the comparative options in these areas, it is useful for me to outline in broad terms why I will be voting for either National or the Act Party at this election. The question of asset sales encapsulates much of the contrast in the opinions of the left and the right. I’m of the opinion that State Owned Enterprises that can be run as businesses, and are told to run as businesses, perform the best when they do indeed run as true businesses. Private incentives to run efficiently, deliver the most value to consumers, and innovate to maintain a market presence, are strongest when the chain of accountability leads to real individuals who stand to lose when they fail to do so.
And I believe the state does have responsibilities in ensuring base levels of healthcare, education and welfare, and can support these responsibilities better when capital is not tied up in the aforementioned business interests.
My belief in the power of incentives applies to the area of education, too. Policies such as school choice (commonly referred to as a ‘voucher’ system) and performance bonuses for teachers would be transformative in reducing structural inequality.
Naturally, I therefore am concerned about the prospect of the abolition of Partnership Schools and National Standards that would come with a Cunliffe-led government. Additionally, I am of the opinion that quality teachers, both on the academic evidence and in my own recent experiences, matter more than a slight reduction in teacher to student ratios. And to the extent that such reductions can be useful, this is best enabled via a system that enables autonomy and competition for schools.
I understand that these views are not universally held to be true, and certainly won’t be by readers of this opinion piece. As I approach voting for the first time, I am well aware many of the preferences I will impute at the polling booth will change over the coming decades. The same is true of my fellow voting virgins.
But I would finally like to say a word on those that choose not to vote. Too often they are lambasted, painted as unworthy or irresponsible members of a democratic nation. Such moral judgement should be resisted. My peers that choose not to vote for the first time may be justifiably disillusioned with all offerings, they may themselves be undecided on key issues and object to taking a gamble that affects so many others, or they may simply not feel included in the camaraderie that motivates so many to vote.
Beneath talk of henchmen and traitors, cover-ups and collusion, there is a contest of ideas at this election. Ideas that may take food off a family’s table, take a job from an unsuspecting worker, or allow a young entrepreneur’s idea to flourish. Regardless of political instinct, let those of us that do choose to vote not lose sight of the gravity of our collective choices; a choice with consequence is an enjoyable choice to make. Enjoy voting.
And James’ song is… ‘December, 1963 (Oh What a Night)’. I chose this song because it’s an uplifting one with a quirky backstory to the lyrics, and is performed by the best band in history in the Four Seasons. It’s also interesting to note that the song was originally written as a celebration of the end of the Prohibition, but its title and lyrics were altered at the request of lead singer Frankie Valli. It takes little effort to reimagine the lyrics for the context of voting for the first time, making it a particularly appropriate footnote for this column.